AggieYell.com will review the top players in the SEC heading into the 2013 season, position by position. First up: quarterback.
1) Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
2) A.J. McCarron, Alabama
3) Aaron Murray, Georgia
4) Connor Shaw, South Carolina
5) Jeff Driskel, Florida
6) Tyler Russell, Mississippi State
7) James Franklin, Missouri
8) Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
9) Zach Mettenberger, LSU
10) Maxwell Smith, Kentucky
New quarterbacks or open competition: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Tennessee
While the SEC is traditionally known as the conference developing outstanding running backs, linemen and defensive backs, the crop of quarterbacks in the conference today is truly outstanding. At least half of the SEC can claim they have a high-caliber signal caller when healthy, a far cry from just a few years ago. Of course, when you have the sport's ultimate weapon (and celebrity) and the winner of the last two national titles in your conference, it's pretty easy to make things look good.
Manziel (295-434, 3,706 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT, 155.3 Rating passing; 201 carries for 1,409 yards and 21 TDs rushing in 2012), as anyone with a pulse knows, is the superstar of college football. The Heisman Trophy winner and 2012 first team All-American, Manziel does things nobody else can and makes it look easy in the process. He's a playmaker at quarterback who can defeat the best defenses in the nation with his legs or his arm. After an impressive spring where he showed greater accuracy and arm strength, it wouldn't be a shock if he replicated -- or improved -- on 2012. If that happens, the Aggies should be considered a favorite for the national championship.
McCarron (211-314, 2,933 yards, 30 TD, 3 INT, FBS-leading 175.3 rating) just wins. He's started for two years and has taken home the national title both times. When he plays well, Alabama doesn't lose -- two of his three interceptions were against A&M. He's an intelligent passer who rarely makes mistakes, but has the ability to beat you deep if you simply deem him a safe, short passer.
Murray (249-386, 3,893 yards, 36 TD, 10 INT, 174.8 rating) drove Georgia to the SEC East title last year as he showed off a big arm and great accuracy (his quarterback rating was second only to McCarron in the FBS). Only a little bigger than Manziel and not nearly as mobile, Murray beats you with the big play: his 10.1 yards per attempt was tops among FBS qualifiers.
Shaw (154-228, 1,956 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT, 158.1 rating) may play for the Ol' Ball Coach, but he doesn't get to sling the rock around like Steve Spurrier's quarterbacks did at Florida. But when he does get a chance to throw, Shaw has been effective: he completed 67.5% of his passes last season and averaged 8.6 yards an attempt. More importantly, he led the Gamecocks to an 11-win season.
Driskel (156-245, 1,646 yards, 12 TD, 5 INT, 135.4 rating) was given a simple task in his first year as a starter: don't lose games. And, in spite of pedestrian numbers that land him smack in the middle of FBS qualifiers, he did his job. He won in Tallahassee, he won in Knoxville and he won in College Station. Driskel's numbers should be better this year as he is the unquestioned starter in Gainesville, but what's asked of him probably won't change much.
Russell (231-394, 2,897 yards, 24 TD, 10 INT, 135.4 rating) threw all but one of his interceptions down the stretch as the Bulldogs crumbled to lose four out five. In games against lesser talent, he thrived -- he threw 17 touchdowns against the likes of Auburn, Arkansas, Jackson State, Middle Tennessee, Troy and Kentucky. Against the Crimson Tide, Aggies, LSU, Ole Miss and Northwestern, his numbers were anemic. This is his last shot at the SEC, so he'll have to step up his consistency in 2013 if Mississippi State is to do better than 7-5.
Franklin (139-234, 1,562 yards, 10 TD, 7 INT, 123.6 rating) was one of many Missouri players to experience a very rude awakening to the SEC in 2012. After throwing for nearly 2,900 yards and running for more than 980 in the Big 12 in 2011, Franklin was battered and beaten for most of last season, missing three games entirely and playing only parts of three others. When he's healthy, he's the second-best dual threat in the conference behind Manziel -- but will he be able to hold up this year?
Wallace (235-368, 2,994 yards, 22 TD, 17 INT, 142.7 rating) came painfully close to losing his starting job at midseason and responded by throwing 11 touchdowns down the stretch. Wallace has a big arm and can put up huge numbers, but he also has a nasty habit of putting the ball in the opponents hands in key situations. That alone knocks him well down the list. If he cuts down on his turnovers in 2013, he can be an upper-echelon quarterback.
Mettenberger (207-352, 2,609 yards, 12 TD, 7 INT, 128.3 rating) has not, with the exception of a strong game against Alabama, shown that he's a good quarterback. In fact, against Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida he was terrible -- and LSU won two of those three games anyway. With the level of talent the Tigers have, Mettenberger's job is to not screw up. That, he does fairly well. On just about any other team in the nation, however, he'd be on the bench.
Smith (103-150, 975 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT) threw a ton during the three games he played in last year before getting hurt and missing the remainder of the season. He performed pretty well against Louisville (2 TD, 0 INT), but was horrible against Western Kentucky (2 TD, 4 INT in an 32-31 overtime loss). What will he be in Mark Stoops' wide open attack? That's to be determined.